Model Release

In the world of today, where more and more people are using cameras to capture everything that seems attractive to them, the question of “Model Release” often pops up. How are amateurs or non-professionals affected by it? If there is a recognizable person in the photograph, how and where can the photograph be legally used? What are the liabilities of such a photograph? I am not a lawyer but based on what I have learnt from various photographers, lawyers and magazine editors, here are the basics relate to Model Release.

Ethics first

It may not be a welcome gesture if you intrude into the personal space of a person. It is definitely bad manners to sneak out a camera to capture photographs which have been refused by the person once. Uphold the ethics of photography especially if you happen to be a street photographer. Do not embarrass people and never ever photograph which people might object to. A lot of photographers disagree to it but my take on this subject is to imagine placing yourself or your loved ones in the same position and then how comfortable would you feel when someone unknown clicks a similar photograph. So, first and foremost, forget about Model Release, forget about liabilities, forget about how candid a moment might appear, and just consider if this action of photographing the scene is fine. Are you not hurting anyone’s feelings or emotions?

What is a Model Release?

Model Release is a legal release typically signed by the subject of a photograph or the legally responsible person who can give the permission, granting permission to publish the photograph. This document, which is signed by the person providing the legal release is called ‘Model Release’. It contains all the terms and conditions relating to the release extending to even the payment of compensation.

When is a Model Release required?

When the photograph includes a person, here are the questions that needs to be answered –

  • Is the person recognizable and the photograph is to be used in any commercial way?
  • Is the photograph taken in a place which can be recognized by the photograph itself as not being a public place and the persons can also be faintly identified?
  • Is the privacy of the person or the personal rights being infringed upon in anyway?

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then there are liabilities to such photographs, depending on the usage.

No release is required for publication, as news, of a photo taken of an identifiable person when the person is in a public place. If the photograph is not to be used commercially, then as a part of ‘freedom of speech or expression’, Model Release is not required (though I am not sure about all the countries). Photos for artistic purposes, even if they have recognizable people, also do no require Model Release. Most of the street photography, photography usually done in anthropology , stories from activities that showcase their impact on human life, photography done to show-case an organization’s work, and similar scenarios also come under photos for artistic purposes and as a part of freedom of speech.

If the photograph is to be used for any kind of commercial activity or trade, a Model Release is required. This also includes any kind of public use as well. If there is a group of people in a photograph then Model Release are required from each and every recognizable individual. However if the individuals are not recognizable in the photograph, then the Model Release is not required, even if the photograph is to be used commercially.  There are some more exceptions to this. Photographs of famous people do not require Model Release. If you happen to click a photograph of the president of US or the queen of England, no one expects you to actually go and get the Model Release signed from them. These are included under the photographs for press or newsworthy events, and are referred to as ‘editorial content’ in the professional photography circles.

Model Anya

(Photograph of a friend modelling – Nikon D200 with Nikkor 50mm at f/5.6 at 1/30 sec, ISO 100. I do not have her Model Release but on a mutual understanding I have her consent to use the photograph in this site.)


Photographers are liable for infringement of privacy, personal rights, emotional impact on the subjects and even any damage to cultural or religious feelings of an individual.

When it comes to the use of photographs – In almost all the scenarios, it is the liability of the publisher or the company using the photograph. The photographer is not liable. The Model Release still should be collected by the photographer since it is easier for the photographer to do so, especially if it is a photograph of a person with no other contact information. After all, photographer happens to be in the location where the photograph was captured. Is it therefore not logical for the photographer or someone present at the scene to collect the Model Release? In most planned photo-shoots, a model release is usually signed before the photography begins.

From a professional model’s point of view, if a Model Release is not signed, the photographer may not and should not use the photograph for any commercial use, and that is not so good for the modelling career.

Contents of a Model Release

The document contains the following main points in the legal mumbo-jumbo:

  • Subjects (model or models) have agreed to the use of their photographs for public display / commercial use / trade etc.
  • They have been informed of all the consequences arising out of the use of their photograph and they also understand the document that they are signing.
  • The document should also word out various expected uses including sensitive uses and ones which can reflect negatively on the model.
  • Subjects have been adequately compensated for the same which is in acceptance by them. The amount of compensation may not be documented in the Model Release.
  • The fact that the photographs can be used in various formats which also include print as well as digital use.
  • The person signing the Model Release is the subject or a legal representative of the subject.
  • It obviously has to be signed by the model. Signature of photographer and witness are optional but I recommend them.

Other similar documents

Property Release – This is similar to a Model Release but involves property of an individual. It can be a building, car, boat or even pets of an individual.

Model Release for Nudes – In countries where this is an accepted form of photography, the Model Release document also contains details about the model being legally competent and an age proof confirming that the model is not a minor as per the local laws.The document also indicates the nature of photographs.

Model Release for children – For children, their legal guardians or parents (ideally both the parents) have to sign the Model Release.

Model Release for Groups – All the recognizable people in the photograph have to sign the release. Even if one person’s signature is missing from a large group, the photograph can not be used for public display or commercial purposes.

Some more miscellaneous information on Model Release

Model Release is usually valid for one photography session. If there are fifty photographs clicked of a person on one fine day at a location, then one Model Release covers all the photographs. The photographs should be easily recognized as a single photo-session. Indicators include the type of photographs, scene, background and even the digital information recorded along with the photograph.

Many professional models and photographers use one time Model Release documents, which are worded accordingly. These are a part of a contract. For semi-professionals like me, it makes more sense to collect Model Release per session.

For most editorial photography, street photography, photo-journalism, story-telling – model release is not required.

Signing the Model Release is the model’s prerogative. If the photographs have to be used in the manners which need Model Release then inform the model before the photo-shoot. I learnt this the hard way. Once I did a photo-shoot of a model for professional purposes but she refused to sign the Model Release. I could not use those photographs for commercial purposes but I do use them for showcasing the artistic aspect. The model is still friends with me. That incident was the result of a communication gap.

As a gesture of goodwill, always show the photographs to the model before using them commercially. Sometimes there may be something which may turn out to be unpleasant for the model. Respect the models, even if it is just any random person who caught your fancy on the street.

Download a Sample Model Release Form : Sample Model Release
(Edit the content based on your local laws and as per your requirements. Also translate it to the local language for better compliance.)

Disclaimer : Please consult your own lawyer for exact details. This article is just my basic understanding of the document as a layman, which may be incomplete, incorrect or totally absurd. Use this information at your own risk. Please feel free to correct me.

This disclaimer is also to be understood along with the one provided for the site here – Disclaimer, Disclosure & Support

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s